Table of Contents
Currently, the fire service department is facing what the police department experience more than two decades ago. An explosion in costly lawsuits is a common challenge encountered by the fire service department today. However, the fire service has partly responded to this by establishing written standard operating procedures (SOPs) for many administrative and operational matters. These procedures have helped in the improvement of operational performance by creating clear lines of responsibility, providing uniformity in practice, and enhancing accountability during emergencies. It is thus evident that the procedures have in a great way helped to reduce the department’s exposure to lawsuits. Nevertheless, this paper finds that individual firefighters and fire service departments are responsible for decisions they make in emergency operations; thus, it is important for these entities to make decisions that are in line with the operational standards.
Traditionally, the fire service department has enjoyed the protection from most criminal and civil suits through the universally held common law concepts of governmental immunity. In this light, governmental entities, including the municipal fire service departments in most states were considered immune from liabilities even when they perform their duties through inadequate or inferior standards. Nevertheless, an examination of news headlines in the past few years clearly indicates a shift in trend. In most of these headlines, fire service departments and individual firefighters are being held accountable for their actions and some of the cases that have been made against fire service departments or other related agencies have significantly helped to shape the trends, standards, and operations of the fire service departments as well as the conducts of the individual firefighters (Toups & Kerne, 2007). This paper is thus purposed to examine the impact of litigations on fire service with categorical inference on Crouch v. Regional Emergency Medical Services.
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Fire department and litigations
Individual firefighters and fire departments are generally protected from legal action by a common law called qualified immunity. Nevertheless, the qualified law stipulates that fire services and firefighters can only be sued if they violate a clearly established law of which a reasonable official in the position of a firefighter would have known. The intent of the qualified immunity law is to protect the civil servants from fear of litigation in performing a discretionary function. In the fire service, one of the most valuable qualities of a firefighter is quick decision making. During emergency services, firefighters are forced to make a quick and delicate decisions, which can result in legal implications, and Crouch v. Regional Emergency Medical Services is probably one of the cases the firefighters can learn from to understand the implications and volatility of decision making while in service (Kistner, 2004).
In Crouch v. Regional Emergency Medical Services, the plaintiff (Linda Crouch) appealed a court order granting the defendant (Matthew Gallagher) motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (10). Based on the facts of the case, the defendant (a sheriff’s deputy) was dispatched to the plaintiff’s home following a 911 call by the plaintiff concerning her husband, Chad Crouch. After the arrival of the defendant, the plaintiff and a family friend expressed concern about Mr. Crouch’s behavior and his statements suggesting he was contemplating on committing suicide. The plaintiff wanted the husband transported to a hospital. The defendant talked Mr. Crouch who calmed down and became cooperative. Mr. Crouch was then handcuffed and escorted him to the back of a patrol car. The defendant then arranged for an ambulance to transports Mr. Crouch to the hospital because he was cooperative. With the arrival of the ambulance, the defendant informed the paramedics that Mr. Crouch had a history of depression and was talking about suicide as well as having been drinking (Varone, 2012).
The defendant then removed the handcuff, but on the way to the hospital, Mr. Crouch opened the ambulance door, stepped on the bumper and fell off the moving ambulance, thus sustaining injuries. The plaintiff thus brought the case against the defendant alleging that his conduct fell under “Gross negligence” exception to qualified immunity. The plaintiff claimed that the defendant was negligent because he released Mr. Crouch from protective custody rather than transporting him to the hospital using the patrol vehicle. Based on the decisions of the trial court, turning Mr. Crouch to an expert EMT professional does not rise to the level of what the court would determine to be reckless, and the plaintiff’s proof of proximate causation was deficient because the incident happened after Mr. Crouch was in the care of the paramedics. Nevertheless, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in granting summary disposition since reasonable minds could differ concerning whether the defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent, but the appeals court agreed with the trial court that the defendant was entitled to a summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7) (Varone, 2012).
Such like cases are a clear demonstration to the fire service departments and individual firefighters that they are not entirely immune to litigation, thus a high level of professionalism is required when one is undertaking his/her duties. Currently, negligence suits arising out of firefighting are aspects of the liability problems facing the firefighting departments and the individual firefighters. Of particular concern are the lawsuits alleging negligence in rendering emergency medical treatment, and these suits such as Crouch v. Regional Emergency Medical Services have brought about permanent changes in the fire service, with their effect resulting in the creation of legislations. Different states have adopted comprehensive regulations governing pre-hospital emergency care, and these regulations establish robust and conclusive evidence of the standards of care for both firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians (Kistner, 2004).
Legal suits have led to changes in fire service departments, and currently, these departments are working in close association with emergency medical teams as a way of enhancing the quality of decision making during emergency services. Working with emergency medical teams ensure that the firefighters limit the chances of litigation against negligence as both the victims of emergency hazards as well as the property will be comprehensively taken care of. Currently, many jurisdictions consider the issue of informed consent, patient treatment, and implied consent to be matters better suited to considerations as negligence, both for the medical fraternity and fire service departments. In this regard, courts will today look at the standards of care of the reasonable prudent and determine if the provider was negligent in not providing enough information or not obtaining a valid consent.
In the local fire service departments, Crouch v. Regional Emergency Medical Services impacted on the nature of decision making among the firefighters by encouraging adherence to the standards and ensuring that protocols are followed at all times as a way of avoiding negligence suits. As a way of improving the quality of standards, the local fire service department has incorporated the delivery of prehospital 911 EMS in three ways, which include, (1) fire service-based using cross-trained firefighters, who act as all-hazard responders and are prepared to handle any situation that may arise out of the scene, including patient care and transportation. (2) incorporation of employees who are not cross-trained as fire suppression personnel, but are EMS-trained responders accompanying firefighters during emergency services, and (3) a combined system, which uses the fire departments for emergency response and a third party (private party) to provide for transport or ambulance services to the patients (Kistner, 2004).
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Currently, the reality on the ground is that fire service responds to and mitigates incidents that are not only fire related, but also the department has become the first-line medical responder for critical illnesses and injury in almost every community in the United States. This thus makes professionalism among firefighters to be of high importance, and any mishap in decision-making can lead to a legal action against the individual firefighters as well as the fire service department. As a way of ensuring comprehensiveness in the services rendered by the fire service department, the department equally responds to calls of elevator entrapments, multicusualty incidents, swift water or ice rescues requiring resuscitation, or environmental hazards such as earthquakes and floods. In all these instances, the firefighters are expected to conduct themselves with a high level of decorum and upholding the ethical standards of professionalism, which resultantly helps in the prevention of lawsuits related to negligence (Alex, 2016).
Other than Crouch v. Regional Emergency Medical Services, McGuckin v. Chicago 191 Ill.App.3d 982, 548 N.E.2d 461 (1989) helped to demonstrate the importance of critical decision making in the fire service department as a way of preventing negligence charges. In McGuckin v. Chicago 191 Ill.App.3d 982, 548 N.E.2d 461 (1989), a fire was detected at the basement of a Chicago Union Station, to which the fire department responded and extinguished the visible fire. The fire was then believed to have been limited to some trash near an electrical chase, and after the companies had left the scene, without checking the upper floors that were locked, a fire erupted in the upper floors. In as much as the fire department made several heroic rescues, one occupant in the building succumbed to his injuries. The widow thus sued the fire department and the building owners, with the jury finding both the fire department and the building owner of negligence. On appeal, however, the verdict against the fire department was reversed based on immunity, though the case was a clear demonstration that negligence is a grave issue in the fire service department (Alex, 2016).
Generally, fire service departments owe a duty of care to property owners to be cautious in ensuring that fire suppression efforts are conducted in a reasonable way and without negligence. Legislations thus look at particular facts of each case, such as in Crouch v. Regional Emergency Medical Services to determine if a duty of care exists by applying two-step test. First, the court asks if the harm that occurred was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant act, and if the answer is a yes, then the court considers if there are any reasons, including governmental activities or policy considerations that ought to negate or limit the tort liability. The current policies in the fire service departments have been harmonized to ensure that they promote the protection of property and victims of an emergency. This thus means that courts have been instrumental in shaping the operations of the fire service departments as well as the individual firefighters (Kistner, 2004).
For a fire service department or an individual firefighter to be considered liable for a negligent action, the plaintiff must prove that he/she suffered damage and that the damage resulted immediately and directly out of the negligent actions of the firefighter or the fire service department. In this light, the courts are forced to ask the question of whether the defendant could have reasonably foreseen the possibility of damage emanating from his/her decision, and if the direct decisions of the fire service department or firefighter lead to damage, a negligent case is confirmed. This is thus a revelation that high level of professionalism is necessary for fire service to prevent unnecessary legal suits (Alex, 2016).
- Danny Kistner. (2004). Liability and the incident commander.
- Kimball Alex. (2016). Legal aspects of emergency services. Sudbury: jones & Bartlett learning.
- Toups, Z. O., & Kerne, A. (2007). Implicit Coordination in Firefighting Practice. The SIGCHI Conference, 707–716.
- Varone, J. C. (2012). Legal considerations for fire and emergency services. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Cengage Learning.